The scene is a London cocktail party, not long after the funeral of Princess Diana. On the surface, all is as it should be: There are canapes, crudites and champagne, men in suits, a speech from the man whose birthday it is. But if you had watched the mournful crowds laying flowers at Kensington Palace, the conversation might strike you as somewhat odd. “Wasn’t it ghastly,” one guest says to another. (He means the funeral, not the accident.) “The British press at its worst,” the other agrees. (He means the adulation granted posthumously to Diana, not the paparazzi who chased her during the last month of her life.) A journalist muses about Nuremberg rallies and mass hysteria; a historian says that the sight of the mob baying for the Queen to make a public statement of regret for the death reminds him of the behavior of the London mobs in the Middle Ages. A former government minister lowers his voice when speaking: “I don’t want to say it too loudly,” he explains, “but I think Charles Spencer should be horsewhipped back to South Africa.”
He was referring to the funeral oration made by Princess Diana’s brother, during which Lord Spencer implied that the Spencer family was better suited than the Royal Family to raise the princess’s sons. Given that Spencer lives abroad, has hardly spent much time with the young princes over the past few years and has not had the most tranquil of private lives himself, the former government minister thought this a bit rich.
But then, so did many other people. You could have had a similar conversation anywhere in Britain since the accident, in a restaurant, over the telephone, at a dinner party — anywhere, that is, except in public.
No one spoke critically of the princess or her brother on the television news. On the contrary, all of the very un-British talk was of the “nation mourning” or of what the “people” felt about the “people’s princess,” as if the nation and the people were wholly unified in their sentiments. Not many newspapers dared criticize the motives of those laying flowers, either. Stiff upper lips slackened, as editors fell over one another to see who could contribute more money to the charity fund now set up in the princess’s honor in between printing long, saccharine interviews with people who slept on sidewalks for two days so they could see the funeral — often the same sort of people who sleep on sidewalks for two days so they can see Mick Jagger.abandoned British reserve altogether, allowing his voice to crack when speaking of Diana, while the leader of the opposition Tory party, William Hague, has helpfully suggested that London’s Heathrow Airport be renamed in her honor. This prompted one of the more daring newspaper columnists to suggest that this was not, perhaps, the best sort of memorial: thousands of people complaining that they had “lost their luggage at Princess of Wales.”
He was one of the few exceptions. For something much worse, or certainly much more powerful, than political correctness has now taken hold of the British media and the British political elite: paralyzing fear of saying anything negative about Diana, or the people publicly mourning Diana, or the ideas of the people publicly mourning Diana — even truly bad ideas like closing down all of the streets in central London along the route of her funeral cortege. True, there were sound commercial reasons for this. One features editor reported to me afterward that she felt something akin to terror when she saw the masses outside Kensington Palace. “I kept telling writers to gush, gush, gush, all week,” she admits. “It was like a parody of what a newspaper features editor is supposed to do.”
No doubt politicians, and the many members of what the British call “the Great and the Good” — all of whom joined in the general adulation — felt much the same sort of panic.
Do not be misled by television or the British press. The great 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once spoke of Britain as a country of “two nations,” by which he meant the rich and the poor. Britain once again feels like two nations: those who are still weeping in public, and those who quietly find the public weeping extremely hard to take.
How to explain the divide? I thought at first that it had to do with access to information about Princess Diana. Anyone who worked on a newspaper knew, for example, that she courted publicity when it was in her interest to do so, and dealt happily with the royals correspondents of the tabloids when she desired their attention — which does take the edge off the idea that, in Lord Spencer’s words, she was the “most hunted woman in the world.”
Equally, anyone who had access to old clipping files could easily dig out some of the less-flattering stories — about how the princess had, for example, dissociated herself from most of her charities a few years ago, in most cases by sending them a terse fax. But plenty of people without any special access to Diana felt the same way. At least one banker friend announced to me that he and his other banker friends had been supporting one another’s skepticism by e-mail: frequent messaging, he explained, made them feel less isolated amid the general public uproar.
This being Britain, I then assumed that the divide must be a class thing. The working classes were mourning the lost fairy-tale princess. The higher reaches of society, particularly, again, those who knew her or knew someone who knew her, were less likely to describe her as “England’s Mother Teresa.”
That was until I got into a taxi on the Friday before the funeral.
“Going out of town this weekend?” asked the driver.
“No,” I said.
“I sure wish I was,” he said emphatically. Far from submitting to the general mood of grief, as one would expect during what was described everywhere as a “national crisis,” he then began complaining bitterly about the traffic, which was indeed nightmarish in London, thanks to roads closed around Buckingham Palace.
Perhaps, then, it was a left/right, Labor/Tory divide? Not quite. It is true that committed monarchists took the Queen’s side after the anger against her. And the traditionalist Prince Charles camp always disliked the more “modern” Princess of Wales.
But it is also the case that many of my left-wing anti-monarchist friends have felt less than pleased about the events. “I thought we were a liberal democracy,” fumed one of them, “not a mob dictatorship.”
This sort of criticism grew louder when two Slovak tourists were thrown in jail for 28 days for stealing teddy bears left by mourners outside Kensington Palace. The harsh sentences, although later reduced, were justified by the judge on the grounds that they had to “reflect the strength of public feeling,” exactly the logic long used to justify keeping innocent Irishmen in jail in Britain: Someone has set off a bomb, and somehow the public must be appeased. The British Left never liked thatsort of establishment behavior, and they didn’t like the idea of jailing Slovaks, either.
The division probably cannot be explained sociologically. I suspect it comes down to a question of character. Some people want to invent a saint; some people do not. Along with the banker and the taxi driver, I think it is possible to respect the princess’s good works, to feel sad that a young woman died violently, yet not to delude oneself into believing that she was something that she was not.
We, the silent minority, also failed to see in her accidental death the kind of constitutional significance — for the monarchy, for Britain — that others seemed to have found.
Or perhaps I should write “we, the silent majority”? Other than the fact that nearly everyone I meet seems to agree with me, I cannot prove that the people made uncomfortable by the gushing over Diana outnumber those who sympathized with it. There are a few indications that this might be the case. Journalist Minette Marin wrote a column in the Sunday Telegraph describing how alienated she felt from the mass mourning: She received dozens of letters in response, almost all saying “Thank you, Minette, for saying what we all feel.”
After I had written something on this general subject in a British newspaper, an irate reader in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, wrote me a note as well. He pointed out that the funeral turnout in London amounted, at most, to a million people, or 2 percent of the British population on a day when “all rival attractions had been suppressed,” and most shops closed. Contrast this, he went on, with “genuinely popular” British events: “On the Saturday nearest November 5th a firework display is held at the castle here. If dry, it has been known to attract paying spectators equivalent to 15 percent of the population of the town.”
And this, thundered the reader, remains true despite the fact that “the Tennis Club holds an overlapping display of similar magnitude . . . .”
I read his letter with relief. At least in some corners, the British remain British after all.